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Well, it's that time again - as the year 2007 draws to a close, we look to the future. And one thing is for sure: the primary foci of this weblog, Pakistan and China, were hardly out of the news this year and won't be in 2008 either.
For China especially, 2008 is the crunch year. The Olympics have acquired a kind of existential significance, and their success or failure have become intertwined with China's contemporary sense of its national identity.
Unfortunately, I can't see the games being the resounding success that the CCP hopes for. Chinese athletes will probably haul in the most medals, but with the enormous pressures upon them there will inevitably be doping scandals. Other athletes will scorn the terrible pollution; tourists will be messed about, pushed, shoved and spat around (most Beijingers will behave admirably, but it'll still be the negatives that get remembered); and journalists will lament the restrictions on free reporting. Few Chinese yet realise how things will be perceived, and it will come as a shock.
Most of all, this most political of sporting events will inevitably be deeply politicised. There will be incidents: medal-winners standing up for Tibet, Taiwanese declarations, perhaps even Uyghur violence. Expect 888 to be a very interesting moment in the definition of the new China.
Turning to Russia, there Putin will remain in control, despite the appointment of a new president in Medvedev - little more than a deputy, really, But I have confidence in Putin: he is not stupid, and will not wish relations with the EU and NATO to deteriorate further. Things were getting silly, what with all this missile defence rubbish, not to mention Litvinenko and Lugovoi, and in 2008 Russia will attempt to repair some of the damage - though not with Britain, who will be the main losers.
Meanwhile, it will be a period of reflection for the EU itself, as the member states attempt to digest the implications of the Lisbon Treaty. Expect at least one ratification to fail.
There is at least reason to positive about the Middle East. Iraq has calmed in 2007, though of course it's not the end by any stretch of the imagination. We are also thankfully unlikely to see action against Iran either. Bush desperately needs a positive legacy to speak of, so with elections in full swing at home he and his cronies may attempt at least to broker a compromise solution. Does he have what it takes? We shall see.
But there are clearly going to be fireworks in Pakistan. Far too early to tell how things will pan out, but it probably won't be good. This writer is already predicting a Balkanisation of the country: that may be going too far, but with the conflicts in NWFP and Balochistan likely to gain pace as society fractures after the elections then the prospects for stability are low. Great map too - worth examining to see what it suggests about Iran and Iraq and all
It is almost certainly the end of the road for Musharraf, and with Bhutto gone there will be a power vacuum. Power vacuums mean conflict, as we have seen in Iraq. But the West and India have meddled enough in Pakistan - it is up to them.
This pretty much says it all:
Unlikely lad thrust into the limelight by fate | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited
Described by friends and relatives as a reserved and polite young man, Bilawal initially rejected the job that was thrust upon him yesterday. "He didn't want to do it. He wanted to continue his studies," admitted Ali Jafri, an uncle whose task it was to "prepare" the teenage dauphin for the role.
Ultimately there was little choice. The inexperienced Oxford student accepted the job with a short speech in which he urged the party to work "for the poor downtrodden people of Pakistan", according to Zulfikar Ali Mirza, a family friend who was present.
He also urged those present to "run the party democratically" - an ironic touch given that his mother was "chairperson for life" and he himself was selected without a vote.
The fact is, now that the dust has settled, that Benazir Bhutto herself may not have been the best choice for Pakistan. She was tainted by political incompetence and scandal during her tenure in the 1990s, and in 2007 was merely a puppet thrust upon the nation by Western powers desperate to manage the deteriorating situation.
Apparently nepotism, not meritocracy, is the modus operandi of the PPP. That's no surprise in South Asia - look at the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India's Congress. Christ Church undergraduate Bilawal Bhutto is hardly an Alexander the Great figure and could well suffer the same fate as Rajiv Gandhi, another quiet man who sought no limelight yet had greatness thrust upon him and suffered for it.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerously fractured societies you could care to mention. Poor Bilwal is hardly even a true-blue Pakistani - due to his mother's exile he didn't grow up there, despite his heritage. The chances that he can hold it together are remote. Worse still, Bilawal's father Asif Ali Zardari is a bad egg in the same vein as Nawaz Sharif, yet it will be he that takes the reins for real.
The people thus have no real democratic choice: it is the devil or the deep blue sea for them now. The devils they know, Musharraf and Sharif, are no longer good for the country: the PPP will win the election due to the wave of populist support following Benazir's death (whether by bomb, bullet or blow to the head is irrelevant - the result of the assassination attempt was the same). Yet many voters will still turn away from a party that lacks both leadership and genuine credibility.
The PPP is now weaker and more discredited than ever, and the ISI and the army will soon undermine it. That will leave a gap for the Islamists, who may already see gains to their parliamentary seats in the wake of seething anti-Americanism. So ultimately, it is political Islam that will benefit from 'democracy' in Pakistan, just as Hamas gained in Palestine.
Not all political Islamists are Taliban or 'Al Qaeda'. But it's not going to help.
Aside from the human tragedy (let's not forget the bystanders who were killed too, not to mention the 140 who died in the last attempt) if anything has implications, this has. I thought that it was Musharraf that was due for a whacking, but this turns things on its head.
Whatever the case, the Islamists will be implicated. Musharraf himself cannot have been so foolish as to have ordered the assassination himself, though one can never rule out the nefarious hand of the ISI or rogue elements within the ex-General's circles of power. The government will be the first target of the people's anger in any case, since they will be blamed for failing to adequately protect her.
Last time round, PPP supporters and civil society remained relatively calm: even during the 'state of emergency' things didn't get out of hand. This time they might. Even now the army will be rolling out its contingency plans for civil unrest. Perhaps another state of emergency is in train.
In many countries, this kind of things tends to rally support for the party of the victim. But lacking leadership - one thing about Pakistani politics is its lack of obvious successors and a pool of talent - the PPP could crumble. That could be good news for Nawaz Sharif, who may be able to cream off some PPP supporters to his own cause.
It's certainly a blow for Musharraf and his claims to legitimacy. He is now in an impossible position, in that any choice he makes will anger a large section of the populace. If he goes on with elections as planned, in the absence of Bhutto a power vacuum could be created: at the very least a weak spot. If he doesn't, he will again be condemned as a dictator and civil society will take to the streets.
Extremist elements within the Islamist parties, the Jamaat Islami, Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam etc. may seize upon events to break out of the uneasy coalition they have with Musharraf and make a bid for more power - especially if Bhutto's death becomes a boon to Sharif, with who the Islamists could ally. That, of course, would have medium-term implications for Afghanistan and the GWOT, since the already ineffective battle against militancy in NWFP will dry up and the madrassas will disgorge even more wannabe Taliban.
The US and UK have lost an ally in Bhutto: unless someone else emerges very soon, they will have to back Musharraf. And he will then be in a better position to dictate terms - if he accepts the hand that put Bhutto back in his way in the first place. The UN Security Council meets today, such is the gravity of the situation. Some are even talking of civil war:
"She has been martyred," said Rehman Malik, the PPP's security adviser.
Riaz Malik, of the opposition party Pakistan Movement for Justice (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf), warned: "The impact will be that Pakistan is in more turmoil - it will be the start of civil war in Pakistan. There is a very real danger of civil war in Pakistan."
India and China also need stability in Pakistan, and will be holding their breath. The future of Kashmir and China's infrastructural plans might also be in the balance. All depends on what happens in the next week.
Just to prove I'm not the only doommonger around here (though my prediction is 2012, Beijing isn't going to scupper the Olympics on any account), Canada's Globe and Mail looks forward to some tense moments in 2008.
It's unlikely, however, that the Taiwanese people are going to vote for independence in a referendum.That's been tried before, and it was a close run thing, but the electorate are not crazy. They know that such a decision is likely to visit a world of hurt upon them.
On the other hand, the scenario explored in the article does carry some weight. The elections and referenda will, if nothing else, add to existing animosity, and a small incident like an air-to-air collision or an accidental firing of missiles could escalate horribly.
globeandmail.com: How a miscalculation could spell mayhem in Taiwan
Tensions have been high for years, but 2008 could be the most dangerous year of all. It is filled with potential trigger points, including two Taiwanese elections, a controversial referendum, the final days of Mr. Chen's presidency and the Summer Olympics.
This explosive combination of political events will begin on Jan. 12 with a legislative election in Taiwan, followed by a presidential election on March 22. The elections will be accompanied by Mr. Chen's latest gambit: a referendum on whether Taiwan should apply for membership in the United Nations under the name Taiwan rather than its official name, the Republic of China.
Tucked away in the news-in-briefs, but possible a very significant deal if it can go ahead. Anything that can get a) Japan and China to cooperate and b) help solve the pollution issue has to be very positive indeed.
Japan, China to set up environmental fund - report - Forbes.com
Japan plans to propose a joint fund worth a total of 200 billion yen with China to help Beijing step up environmental protection efforts, a newspaper said Monday.
The government and ruling parties were working out the details, with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda intending to propose the plan during his visit to China starting Thursday, the Nikkei business daily said.
With Pakistan so desperate for the Chinese Yuan, could it be that Musharraf's recent consolidation of his power is in answer to Chinese demands for security and stability? Or would that be "interference in its internal affairs"?
Asia Times Online :: South Asia news, business and economy from India and Pakistan
The countries are seeking to triple bilateral trade to US$15 billion in the next five years from $4.2 billion in 2006 under a free-trade agreement signed just over 12 months ago. They recently signed agreements worth around $300 million under which Pakistani products would be exported to China, involving 15 Pakistani companies and covering goods such as cotton, chrome ore, leather and rapeseed meal.
The PCIC, established in July with paid-up capital of 4.25 billion rupees ($69 million) with the government in Islamabad a direct shareholder, will help Pakistan to secure Chinese investment in various sectors and help Pakistani exporters target openings in China, according to officials. The company will perform investment banking business on a commercial basis.
Asia Times reports on the $2bn China-Iran Yadaravan oil deal in the wake of the NIE estimate, and analyses the broader implications.
With China's opinion being that the US is now waking up to Iran as a regional power, it seems that India has been put in an awkward position - having already lost out on its dealings with Tehran in order to appease Washington.
Meanwhile, China has seized a massive mining deal in Afghanistan despite all India's efforts in the country (to the chagrin of pakistan). It would appear that New Delhi has made some geopolitical miscalculations.
...by the beginning of June, Chinese regional experts had already assessed, "Iran, with no geopolitical competitors, has become the 'boss' within the Persian Gulf region. Since the US has fallen into the Iraqi quagmire, Iran concludes that the United States dare not use force against Iran. Therefore, it maintains strong strategic determination and refuses to make concessions on the nuclear issue.
"This favorable environment, coupled with a strategic resolve, has earned Iran a certain status of equilibrium with the United States in the contest within the Persian Gulf region. It is this balance of power that has forced the United States to sit down and talk with Iran. Iran, hence, has won the battle for survival and the status of a regional power."
It seems that there is a realisation now (as probably there always was) in Whitehall that there is no direct military solution to Afghanistan. The problem, however, is something of a chicken-and-egg situation: development will give the people the prosperity and stability they need to rid themselves of extremism, but without security there can be no development.
That's why some of the thinking outlined below is slightly worrying. Rushing things - as occurred under 'Vietnamisation' - will not improve the situation. At worst, it's merely a cover for an undignified retreat.
The battle of Musa Qula also has some uncomfortable analogies. Great that the town has been retaken - but why was it lost in the first place? That's just what went wrong in Vietnam: military victory on the ground was not backed up with long-term support. The Vietcong simply moved back in after the Americans left, as per Mao's doctrine of guerilla warfare.
The problem is that there are simply not enough NATO troops to do the job and the Afghan Army is not up to the job.
BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | Dismantling the Taleban is the aim
The concept is that there are three tiers in the Taleban. The top tier is made up of the irreconcilable leadership. The second tier consists of locally based commanders and the bottom tier are the ordinary foot soldiers.
It is the second tier that is being targeted and the hope is that middle level commanders will bring a lot of the third tier with them. Some 5,000 ex-Taleban fighters are said to have come over before...
The buzzwords being used about Afghanistan right now are - Afghanistan, localisation, reconciliation, and (an old one) reconstruction.
We've definitely been down this road before, I seem to remember. This time, however, the intelligence (or lack of it) is more out in the open and thus less liable to be misused for political ends. Interesting in itself to read the National Intelligence Estimate excerpt, with all its caveats about the inherent ambivalence and uncertainty of its own nature (see p5).
In the run-up to Iraq, so much emphasis was placed on the WMD theory it became the de facto casus belli (apologies for the overuse of Latin there). Whereas the reality was that the motivation was political, and more complex.
The war was really fought not just for oil and to attempt to introduce a democratic domino effect but to prevent Saddam from developing WMD, not prevent him from using them. Thus the NIE is just as likely to leave the remaining neocons unconvinced of the dangers of attacking Iran.
On the other hand, as the author quoted below suggests, "the entire framework for US-Iranian relations would appear to have shifted, and with it the structure of geopolitical relations throughout the region." That means room for negotiation with Tehran on calming Iraq - the ultimate pragmatism prevailing in an uncomfortable situation.
So it's a possibility that either or both the NIEs on Iran - the 2005 one that assessed with high confidence that Iran intended to develop nuclear weapons and the 2007 one that says it doesn't - were politically motivated, but for different reasons.
Stratfor - Geopolitical Intelligence Report
It is altogether possible to have so many sources, human and technical, that you have no idea what the truth is. That is when an intelligence organization is most subject to political pressure. When the intelligence could go either way, politics can tilt the system. We do not know what caused the NIE to change its analysis. It could be the result of new, definitive intelligence, or existing intelligence could have been reread from a new political standpoint.
Consider the politics. The assumption was that Iran wanted to develop nuclear weapons -- though its motivations for wanting to do so were never clear to us. First, the Iranians had to assume that, well before they had an operational system, the United States or Israel would destroy it. In other words, it would be a huge effort for little profit. Second, assume that it developed one or two weapons and attacked Israel, for example. Israel might well have been destroyed, but Iran would probably be devastated by an Israeli or U.S. counterstrike. What would be the point?
The Guardian picks up and spins a recent pronouncement by Frederick Kagan of AEI. The operative paragraph and conclusion are below, and deserve a bit of picking apart.
A complete collapse of Pakistani government rule that allows an extreme Islamist movement to fill the vacuum? Highly unlikely. Kagan may say he is not "fear-mongering", but this statement is over the top. Whatever its problems, the moderate mainstream in Pakistan's civil society and the military is more than powerful enough to prevent that eventuality.
There again, it did happen in Iran, but circumstances now are not the same. It is correct, therefore, to make contingency plans, but not to push forward what is not yet an inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy.
A struggle within the Pakistani military? Also not likely. Undoubtedly there remain radicals in the ISI, but if nothing else Musharraf has probably purged the army of the extremist tendencies seen under General Zia, who was himself somewhat discredited by the end of his rule.
However, there is a distinct possibility of Islamabad losing control of the outer regions - some might say it has already done so. This does have implications for both Afghanistan and Pakistan and thus must be taken seriously.
The basic point is that Pakistan needs well-planned aid and support if its WMD are not to fall into the wrong hands. It's the kind of thinking that should have been deployed prior to the Iraq invasion, which after all was about the same thing - preventing access of the wrong people to WMD.
Finally, two things Kagan fails to mention are the China and India factors. He treats the subject as if it's entirely a US issue, which it is not. The two Asian powers have deep-set interests too, and must be part of the solution rather than allowed to become part of the problem.
Pakistan’s Collapse, Our Problem - New York Times
The most likely possible dangers are these: a complete collapse of Pakistani government rule that allows an extreme Islamist movement to fill the vacuum; a total loss of federal control over outlying provinces, which splinter along ethnic and tribal lines; or a struggle within the Pakistani military in which the minority sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda try to establish Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism...
The great paradox of the post-cold war world is that we are both safer, day to day, and in greater peril than before. There was a time when volatility in places like Pakistan was mostly a humanitarian worry; today it is as much a threat to our basic security as Soviet tanks once were. We must be militarily and diplomatically prepared to keep ourselves safe in such a world. Pakistan may be the next big test.